We have entered into the Great and Holy Week. We are, as an ancient liturgical text puts it, like a ship coming into harbour after a long, stormy voyage. A prayer rises again in my heart, one that I have often prayed, one that I have shared with some of you:
O great Passion!
O profound Wounds!
O outpouring of blood!
O highest Sorrow!
O Death suffered in every bitterness!
Be to us healing and eternal life.
We cannot enter into Holy Week liturgically without allowing the graces that flow sacramentally from the Passion, the Wounds, the Blood, and the Death of Christ to flow over us and into us, washing us clean of old sins and habits of sin, and infusing us with the desire to be conformed to the ennothingment (exinanitio) of Our Lord a new and deeper way. The Sacred Host contains the Passion of the Lord. It is the Christus Passus. It is the reality of His Wounds, His Blood, and His Death. May I share with you a text that some of you may already know?
There is not a single moment of My sufferings that is not present in this the Sacrament of My Love for you. Here you will find Me in every detail of My Passion, for nothing of My Passion has passed away. All remains actual and efficacious in the mysteries of My Body and Blood given up for you.
If you would be with Me in My sufferings, come to Me in the Sacrament of My Love. If you would keep watch with Me in Gethsemani, come to My altar, and abide there with Me.
If you would accompany Me in My imprisonment, in My trial, in My condemnation, and in My being mocked, scourged, and crowned with thorns, seek Me out in this Sacrament where I wait for a little compassion from those who profess to be My friends.
I am still carrying My cross, and the weight of your sins falls heavy on my shoulder, and crushes Me even to the ground. None of this is over and forgotten; it remains present in the Sacrament of My Passion, in the Mystery of My Sacrifice made present on the altar and remaining wherever I am: the pure Victim, the Holy Victim, the Spotless Victim, whom you contemplate in the Host.
Here I am present, crucified, with My wounds pouring out blood, and My prayer to the Father piercing the heavens. Here I am present in the very moment of My death wherein all is consummated. Here I am present with My open side, from which flow out blood and water to purify souls, heal them, and restore them to life.
Would that My friends knew this: that all of My Passion is contained in the Most Holy Sacrament, not as something lost to a past that can never be recovered, but as My perfect and all-sufficient oblation to the Father, renewed here and now in every detail, although sacramentally, and without a new shedding of blood.
This all my saints understood: the presence of My Passion in this Sacrament, and this Sacrament as the memorial of My Passion. This the Holy Spirit teaches even to the little and to the poor who open their hearts to My mysteries made present at the altar. This is the great reality that, today, so many have forgotten.
For this reason do I ask you to come to Me here in the Sacrament where I wait for you, and to offer Me the consolation in My sufferings that only you can give Me, and for which I have waited so long.
The first effect of our contact with the Passion of the Lord is humility and, particularly, humility in our relations with one another. This humility—a real emptying out of self—translates into (1) obedience in hard and contrary things; (2) patience in adversities and injuries; (3) gentleness and humility when injured, when struck, when obliged to do hard things; when deceived or disappointed by another; (4) the habit of blessing the one who offends, praying for the one who has inflicted pain; and (5) choosing always to go on with joy, subsequuntur gaudentes. These five effects of our contact with the Passion of the Lord are contained in the Fourth Degree of Humility:
The fourth degree of humility is, that if in this very obedience hard and contrary things, nay even injuries, are done to him, he should embrace them patiently with a quiet conscience, and not grow weary or give in, as the Scripture saith: “He that shall persevere to the end shall be saved.” And again: “Let thy heart be comforted, and wait for the Lord.” And shewing how the faithful man ought to bear all things, however contrary, for the Lord, it saith in the person of the afflicted: “For Thee we suffer death all the day long; we are esteemed as sheep for the slaughter.” And secure in their hope of the divine reward, they go on with joy, saying: “But in all these things we overcome, through Him Who hath loved us.” And so in another place Scripture saith: “Thou hast proved us, O God; Thou hast tried us as silver is tried by fire; Thou hast led us into the snare, and hast laid tribulation on our backs.” And in order to shew that we ought to be under a superior, it goes on to say: “Thou hast placed men over our heads.” Moreover, fulfilling the precept of the Lord by patience in adversities and injuries, they who are struck on one cheek offer the other: to him who taketh away their coat they leave also their cloak; and being forced to walk one mile, they go two. With Paul the Apostle, they bear with false brethren, and bless those that curse them. (Chapter VII)
Our sacramental contact with the Passion of the Lord transforms all our relations with one another. Benedictine life is marked by an exquisite courtesy. The charity we have towards our fathers and brothers is not mawkish; it is virile and gentlemanly. Blessed Schuster often speaks of the characteristically Benedictine attribute that he calls signorilità, that is, refinement, elegance, and gentility. When this quality of signorilità is diminished in the cloister, charity becomes tepid, worldly manners gain ground, and life together becomes burdensome.
Let the younger brethren, then, reverence their elders, and the elder love the younger. In calling each other by name, let none address another by his simple name; but let the elders call the younger brethren Brothers, and the younger call their elders Fathers, by which is implied the reverence due to a father. But let the abbot, since he is considered to represent the person of Christ, be called Lord and abbot, not that he hath taken it upon himself, but out of reverence and love for Christ. Let him be mindful of this, and shew himself to be worthy of such an honour. Wherever the brethren meet one another, let the younger ask a blessing from the elder. And when the elder passeth by, let the younger rise, and give place to him to sit down; nor let the younger presume to sit with him, unless the elder bid him, that it may come to pass as it is written: “In honour preferring one another.” (Chapter LXIII)
Our sacramental contact with the Passion of the Lord obliges us to die to ourselves in matters that cut close to the bone. A brother may hold an opinion different from the opinion held by his senior, and this with regard to small matters or to great ones. Such a brother will defer to his senior with humility, graciousness, and magnanimity. A senior may hold an opinion different from the opinion held by his abbot; he will nonetheless defer to the abbot with humility, graciousness, and magnanimity. The solemnly professed monks will defer to the fathers senior to them with the same humility, graciousness, and magnanimity. One of the surest signs of growth in humility is the readiness with which one lets go of one’s own opinions. It is not forbidden to express what one thinks to the abbot or to a senior, but such representations must be made with humility and with detachment, that is, with a readiness to let go of one’s position, and this with good cheer.
This principle of behaviour has consequences that affect all of us. One brother may observe the words, or actions, or attitude of another, and begin to say to himself inwardly: “Why doesn’t our Reverend Father correct him, rebuke him, or mete out a punishment to him?” This kind of conflict becomes triangular. There are three persons involved: the offending brother; the one who is offended; and the abbot, who is perceived as being blind, or irresponsible, or soft, or excessively tolerant, or timid, or weak, or prejudiced, or as having favourites. If the abbot delays taking action, the conflict is exacerbated. If he takes action too soon, without sufficient prayer and prudent reflection, he risks making the conflict worse. If he corrects the offending brother, the one who is offended feels vindicated, but the offending brother may fall into bitterness. If the abbot temporises, the one who is offended may feel that he is not taken seriously and may begin to resent not only the offending brother but also the abbot who is slow to act. As a general rule, once a monk has made known his concerns, his objections, and his fears to the abbot, he must let go of them, walk away from them, and trust the abbot to act at the time and in the way that he judges best. This is not easy, but it is the best line of action. The abbot, for his part, must ever keep the injunctions of Chapter LXIV in mind:
Let him hate sin, and love the brethren. And even in his corrections, let him act with prudence, and not go too far, lest while he seeketh too eagerly to scrape off the rust, the vessel be broken. Let him keep his own frailty ever before his eyes, and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken. And by this we do not mean that he should suffer vices to grow up; but that prudently and with charity he should cut them off, in the way he shall see best for each, as we have already said; and let him study rather to be loved than feared. Let him not be violent nor over anxious, not exacting nor obstinate, not jealous nor prone to suspicion, or else he will never be at rest. In all his commands, whether concerning spiritual or temporal matters, let him be prudent and considerate. In the works which he imposeth, let him be discreet and moderate, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob, when he said “If I cause my flocks to be overdriven, they will all perish in one day.” Taking, then, the testimonies, borne by these and the like words, to discretion, the mother of virtues, let him so temper all things, that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak nothing at which to take alarm. (Chapter LXIV)
Chapter LXV, De Præposito Monasterii, gives principles that apply not only to the præpositus, but also to the Cellarer, the Father Master, the infirmarian, choir master, work manager, and any other monk holding a particular office or charged with responsibility. Saint Benedict speaks of a situation in which the præpositus is appointed by an authority outside the monastery, but the temptation and conflict that he describes may just as easily arise in the thoughts of officials who are appointed by the abbot.
From the moment of his appointment an incentive to pride is given to him, the thought suggesting itself that he is freed from the authority of his abbot, since he hath been appointed by the very same persons. Hence are stirred up envy, quarrels, backbiting, dissensions, jealousy and disorders. And while the abbot and præpositus are at variance with one another, it must needs be that their own souls are endangered by reason of their disagreement; and those who are their subjects, while favouring one side or the other, run to destruction. (Chapter LXV)
The abbot and the officials appointed by him must take great pains to think and to act with one mind and one heart. Should an official disagree with the abbot, it is incumbent on that official to adjust his thinking and acting to the mind of the abbot. One should never attempt to pressure the abbot into falling into line with one’s own thinking and preferences. This does not mean that the abbot ought not listen to his officials. On the contrary, he will listen attentively to what his officials have to say but, following Chapter III, at the end of the day, the abbot alone decides the policy to be adopted, and all rally to his decision.
Let all therefore, follow the Rule in all things as their guide, and let no man rashly depart from it. Let no one in the monastery follow the will of his own heart: nor let any one presume insolently to contend with his abbot, either within or without the monastery. (Chapter III)
There will come, in the life of every monk, hard situations in which he feels that the commands laid upon him by the abbot are well nigh impossible. Everything in him may want to cry out, “No. This is an injustice. This is an intolerable burden. This is going too far. I am neither prepared nor disposed to doing this thing.” Saint Benedict says, “Let him receive the orders of him who biddeth him with all mildness and obedience”. Mildness and obedience. Cum omni mansuetudine et obœdientia. Learn this phrase by heart, and repeat it to yourself when you are tempted to react angrily, rashly, or disobediently. Meekness and obedience are graces that flow from the Passion of Christ.
If on any brother there be laid commands that are hard and impossible, let him receive the orders of him who biddeth him with all mildness and obedience. But if he seeth the weight of the burden altogether to exceed his strength, let him seasonably and with patience lay before his superior the reasons of his incapacity to obey, without shewing pride, resistance, or contradiction. If, however, after this the superior still persist in his command, let the younger know that it is expedient for him; and let him obey out of charity, trusting in the divine assistance. (Chapter LXVIII)
Whenever a monk detects in himself movements of pride, resistance, or contradiction, he must immediately humble himself before his senior, desist from all resistance, and stop trying to make his point. You know the story about the brother who sought counsel of Abba Poemen:
A brother questioned Abba Poemen in this way, “My thoughts trouble me, making me put my sins aside, and concern myself with my brother’s faults”. The old man told him the following story about Abba Dioscorus ,the monk, “In his cell he wept over himself, while his disciple was sitting in another cell. When the latter came to see the old man he asked him, “Father, why are you weeping?” “I am weeping over my sins,” the old man answered him. Then his disciple said, “You do not have any sins, Father.” The old man replied, “Truly, my child, if I were allowed to see my sins, three or four men would not be enough to weep for them.”
Saint Benedict has a boundless confidence in divine grace. He is the faithful echo of the Apostle to whom Our Lord Himself spoke, saying: “My grace is enough for thee; my strength finds its full scope in thy weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). One of the most compelling phrases of the Holy Rule is the utter reliance on grace that Saint Benedict expresses in the conclusion of Chapter LXVIII: Et ex caritate, confidens de adiutorio Dei, oboediat. “And for the sake of charity, let him obey, trusting in the divine assistance”.
Each member of the community, no matter what his age and rank, owes respect and obedience, not only to the abbot, but to the fathers and brothers senior to him, or to those invested with a particular responsibilty. First among these is the præpositus, or as we call him here, the Father Subprior. Then come the deans, or those having responsibility for a particular department or charge. Among these are the Father Cellarer, the Father Master of Novices, the guestmaster, choirmaster, sacristan, work manager, infirmarian, refectorian, cook, librarian, land manager, director of publications . . . and the list may go on! Not all of these offices are filled at the moment. This is not the point. A monastery flourishes in a rightly ordered charity. Subjacent to a rightly ordered charity are the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. We read in Chapter LXXI:
Not only is the excellence of obedience to be shewn by all to the abbot, but the brethren must also obey one another, knowing that by this path of obedience they shall come unto God. The commands, then, of the abbot or the superiors appointed by him (to which we allow no private orders to be preferred) having the first place, let all the younger brethren obey their elders with all charity and vigilance. And should any one be found refractory, let him be corrected. (Chapter LXXI)
There is in Chapter LXXI an injunction which we are bound to put into practice literally:
If a brother be rebuked by the abbot, or any of his superiors, for the slightest cause, or if he perceive that the mind of any superior is even slightly angered or moved against him, however little, let him at once, without delay, cast himself on the ground at his feet, and there remain doing penance until that feeling be appeased, and he giveth him the blessing.
It does not matter if the abbot, or the superior, or the senior be right or wrong in the litigious matter. Everyone knows that abbots make mistakes of judgment. Even saints have come down on the wrong side of disputed questions. What matters is that the abbot is the abbot, the superior a superior, and the senior a senior. The subject or the junior will never go wrong by casting himself on the ground without delay until the anger of the senior be appeased and sets things right by giving a blessing. Afterwards, it may well happen that Father Gerontius will say, “Well, upon reflection I have to admit that Brother Juventus had a point. He is correct and I was wrong”. Or Father Gerontius may say, “I’m glad I stood my ground against Brother Juventus. His reaction was rash, and what he wanted would have had dire consequences”. The point is that, correct or mistaken, Brother Juventus did the right thing by humbling himself. The younger man humbles himself. The elder gives a blessing. And, in the end, all will be well.
All of the graces that flow sacramentally from the Passion of the Lord bud in faith, blossom in hope, and bear fruit in charity. This is why Saint Benedict reserves his chapter on fraternal charity for the second to last chapter of the Holy Rule. Straightaway, Saint Benedict says that the evil zeal of bitterness is opposed to fraternal charity.
As there is an evil zeal of bitterness, which separateth from God, and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal, which keepeth us from vice, and leadeth to God and to life everlasting. (Chapter LXXII)
The evil zeal of bitterness is rooted in pride and self-assertion; it gives rises to resentment, covert hostility, anger, and violence. There were two monks in the desert who could not understand why people in the world quarrel, injure, and kill one another. They decided to try an experiment. The one brother said to the other, “Let us put a loaf of bread between us. I will say it is mine. Then you will say it is yours. Then we will become angry and quarrel as people in the world do, just this once, to see what it is like.” The other brother said, “Very well, Father. You begin”. And so the first monk said, “This loaf of bread is mine!” The other responded, “No, this loaf of bread is mine.” The first then said, “Very well, if it is yours, take it and go in peace.” They were unable to quarrel and learned by this how people in the world fall into sins of hostility, anger, and violence.
The fruit of charity is abundant in a cloister where monks practice good zeal. Saint Benedict tells us that the test of a monk’s charity is his readiness to put another before himself in honour. This is where charity begins. I give to my father or to my brother not only the honour that is due to him, but I also give him the honour due to me. Be ready to cede your place to your brother. Be ready to give the honour due you to your brother. Be ready to decrease so that your brother may increase.
Saint Benedict knows that the monastic family will be made up of men with infirmities: some will suffer infirmities of body, others will suffer infirmities of mind. It is not for us to ask, “Why does Father Winnibald walk a certain way, or why cannot he not do what others do, or why does he eat differently, or sleep longer, or why is excused from this or that common exercise?” When we do this we are like the disciples who asked Our Lord, “Rabbi, who hath sinned, this man, or his parents, that he should be born blind?” (John 9:2). It is not for us to try to explain to ourselves why another brother suffers from bouts of melancholy, or giddiness, or nervousness, or moodiness. With regard to all infirmities, be they of body or of mind, we have only to keep in mind the response of Our Lord: “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents; but that the works of God should be made manifest in him” (John 9:3). What matters is that we endure one another’s infirmities most patiently.
Let monks, therefore, exert this zeal with most fervent love; that is, “in honour preferring one another.” Let them most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of mind. Let them vie with one another in obedience. Let no one follow what he thinketh good for himself, but rather what seemeth good for another.
One of the most common manifestations of pride—and all pride is a kind of insecurity, a fear of losing love, or of being diminished in the mind of another—is to want to impose one’s own will. Saint Benedict says that we are to vie with one another in obedience: each brother is to ask himself how he can go further than his neighbour in obedience, in letting go of his own will, and in choosing what another prefers. “Let no one follow what he thinketh good for himself, but rather what seemeth good for another.”
Let them cherish fraternal charity with chaste love, fear God, love their Abbot with sincere and humble affection, and prefer nothing whatever to Christ. And may He bring us all alike to life everlasting. (LXXII)
Monks are not men who live without affection, without friendship, and without the consolations of human company. God preserve us from Voltaire’s cruel caricature of monks: “They come together without knowing one another; they live without loving; they die without regretting one another.” No, the cloister is a school of friendship. Our common search for God does not make us strangers to one another; it makes us friends. Our affection is chaste, that is to say, not manipulative, not self-serving, not exploitative. Neither is it cold, that is to say, unfeeling, remote, and locked in the world of ideas.
Between the chaste love of fraternal charity and sincere and humble affection for the abbot, Saint Benedict inserts the fear of God. The fear of God is that by which the movements of the heart are rightly ordered, be they towards one’s fathers and brothers, or towards the abbot. A monk is to have a sincere and humble affection—yes, affection—for his abbot. Again, there is in this sincere and humble affection nothing mawkish; there is no fawning, no flattery, no paternalism and no infantilisation. There is a real bond of the heart of the monk to the heart of his abbot in the Heart of Christ, a bond that finds expression in the healthy conventions of monastic decorum and, again, in the signorilità, the noble courtesy that eschews all that is artificial and rigid and, at the same time, is ingenious in expressing sincere warmth and filial attachment.
For Saint Benedict, all charity is ordered to the love of Christ. Christo omnino nihil praeponant. Nowhere is the love of Christ more lavishly and efficaciously shown us than in His bitter Passion, and in the Sacred Host which contains all the healing virtus of Christ’s sufferings. The end of all our monastic observances is to provide each one with an interior compass that directs him straight to Christ, to the love of Christ, to the Heart of Christ. It is by an unswerving fidelity to the interior compass of love, that we shall, as Saint Benedict says, be brought “all alike to life everlasting.”